The final statement of J Dilla, aka Jay Dee, aka James Yancey, created on his death-bed, was 2006’s Donuts, a ghostly and earthly masterwork that spins around and around through mysteries, on to infinity. The ghost of Dilla lives on in the collective memory of hip-hop fans, but on new albums too. His unfinished album The Shining was finished and released in 2007. His presence hung strongly over Erykah Badu’s 2008 epic New Amerykah Part One (4th World War). Rare Dilla records continue to be released. And now there’s Illa J’s debut LP, Yancey Boys.
This one is more than just homage. It’s a collaboration, and between family members no less. Illa J is John Yancey, James’ brother, 12 years younger. Yancey Boys takes leftover productions J Dilla created and cast aside between 1995 and 1998 and uses them as the foundation for new songs. During those years, Dilla worked on, among others, the Pharcyde’s Labcabincalifornia and A Tribe Called Quest’s Beats, Rhymes and Life, two classic albums with an air of contemplation, with a mission to, as the Pharcyde put it, “kick somethin’ that means somethin’”. Yancey Boys carries that same feeling.
It is a tribute that doesn’t make too big a fuss over itself. There are a few references to Dilla’s greatness, plus memories of his personality. “Alien Family”, for example, is Frank Mitty’s spoken recollection of Dilla’s UFO love, put into the context of the entire Yancey family. Mostly, though, Yancey Boys offers a reverant continuation of the feeling of J Dila’s music, while also introducing a new talent in Illa J.
Ila J’s vocal style, a mixture of rapping and singing, is in step with J Dilla’s own in its low-key swagger, though it’s different in specifics. Both project the air of a thoughtful tough guy, a roughneck philosophizer. Illa J is in an introspective mode for much of the album, but at the same time never hesitates to boast or crack a joke. Or to coin a phrase, or paint a picture with his own style, like his whispered “I shake these haters like dice” on “R U Listenin?”, or the whole of “Air Signs”, a playful introduction to his family through the lens of their zodiac signs.
Illa J has said he grew up watching his older brother work on beats. Yancey Boys is clearly a labor of love, following in his brother’s footsteps. Yet the songs are more often about moving forward than looking back. The first track, “Timeless”, starts with Illa J dedicating himself to creating: “I spend so much time just doing nothing / I think it’s time for me to start doing something”. Throughout Yancey Boys there’s a feeling of forward motion. Phrases like “keep on moving” and “don’t fight the feeling” capture that sense while also touching back to songs in J Dilla’s catalogue. Even the boast-heavy “We Here”, where Illa J basks in the imagery of luxury, is really about creating your own state of brilliance. After paying tribute to anyone living the highlife, he makes it clear it’s less about jewels than inspiration: “The money is nothing / It’s all about the journey / It’s all about the challenge”.
Illa J raps about love, mistakes, giving thanks and, of course, the art of hip-hop. But the overall theme is first steps, new beginnings. “It’s showtime”, one chorus declares. Or as he puts it on “All Good”: “Plan A / Let’s do it / We got shit to do / Let’s get to it”. The world moves on. J Dilla lives through.
The music on Yancey Boys is classic Dilla: funky and meditative. It’s spacey, occasionally strange, and loops in circles like those donuts, like infinity. The music is also lean. That could be a sign that the tracks were unfinished, but even if that’s the case, the sparseness works as a style. When J Rocc of the Beat Junkies adds scratches to “R U Listenin?” and “DFTF”, it’s a great touch, classically hip-hop. Yet there’s something deep, elemental even, about how unadorned most of the tracks are. On the last track, Illa J says the Yancey family call themselves the “air signs”. Dilla’s music has that elemental quality, like it’s air or water, a manifestation of nature. That’s true whether it’s an instrumental project like Donuts or a supporting track for a rapper. Illa J seems to understand that about Dilla’s music. He keeps Yancey Boys in that same natural/mystical space, carrying on his brother’s spirit while making a strong, if not explosive, mark as his own artist.